GENEVA - U.S. and Iranian diplomats failed to meet at the negotiating table together Thursday. Top Iranian and Western officials are trading public barbs. And back in Washington, senators conspired to impose another round of sanctions on Tehran. It's all raising fears that the historic nuclear deal which seemed so close just a few days ago might be slipping away.
Wendy Sherman, the chief American nuclear negotiator held a brief meeting Wednesday night with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but a senior State Department official said that Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat, was the only leader to hold direct and formal talks with the Iranians Thursday at the high-end Intercontinental Hotel here.
The State Department official said leaders from the so-called P5+1 -- the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China -- held bilateral talks throughout the day and stressed that Ashton was negotiating on behalf of the entire group. Despite the darkening atmosphere, it's too soon to conclude that the talks are unraveling. The current talks are designed to freeze -- or at least slow -- Iran's nuclear program for roughly six months while the two sides work towards a comprehensive agreement. The U.S. and its allies would give Tehran access to roughly $7 billion in frozen assets as part of any interim deal. Privately, two Western officials said Thursday's talks had been fairly productive and that there was still a decent chance of a deal. The officials said Iran might have been posturing to show their domestic audience back home that they were taking a hardline with the P5+1 rather than simply agreeing to every Western demand.
Still, the lack of any direct contact between American and Iranian negotiations on the second day of what is supposed to be a three-day conference was striking. American officials say the talks can be extended through the weekend if a deal was close at hand, but the talks could also come to an abrupt halt Friday if the remaining differences between the two sides can't be bridged.
Publicly, at least, there were indications that the Iranians and their P5+1 counterparts were beginning to lose confidence in each other's willingness to make the concessions necessary to reach a deal.
Late Thursday night, a senior Iranian official offered a strikingly pessimistic assessment of the state of the talks. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iranian reporters that there was no point inviting Kerry or other foreign ministers to Geneva until the two sides were close to an agreement. Asked how the negotiations were going, Araqchi offered a blunt answer: "We haven't made any progress." EU officials were far more optimistic, with a spokesman for Ashton saying earlier that Thursday had been a "day of intense, substantive and detailed" negotiations, conducted in a "good atmosphere." The differences between the two assessments suggest the two sides are far apart not just on the substance of the negotiations, but also on the far more basic question of whether they're advancing at all.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told reporters that Tehran "cannot enter serious talks until the trust is restored." He quickly added that negotiations would continue, but the comments were unusually blunt for an experienced diplomat.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, told a French television station that he hoped a deal could be reached but stressed that any agreement "can only be possible based on firmness."
Fabius has consistently been one of the most hawkish of the P5+1 leaders, and his opposition to the draft text cobbled together during the previous round of talks earlier this month helped sink the deal. Fabius argued then that the agreement didn't do enough to reduce Iran's stockpiles of enriched uranium or to halt the construction of its Arak plutonium reactor. In his interview on French television, Fabius said that his position had now been adopted by the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1.
The public jabs come as Iranian leaders appeared to be hardening their public negotiating positions. On Wednesday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a "rabid dog" and said his country had red lines in the talks that it was not willing to cross.
Iranian officials have long said that one of their red lines was a Western acknowledgement that the country had a "right" to continue enriching uranium, something the P5+1 countries have been unwilling to grant. Diplomats from both sides have suggested various ways of wording a compromise, but they haven't agreed on one yet.
Another sticking point is the future of Iran's stockpiles of near-weapons grade uranium. The P5+1 want Iran to halt its enrichment efforts and take clear steps to reduce its existing stores. Tehran has signaled that it might be willing to hold off on enriching any more of the uranium, but that it wasn't willing to give away any of the current stockpile.
Meanwhile, in Congress, the Obama administration's weeks-long effort to convince Senate leaders to hold off on a new round of sanctions appears to have succeeded. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opted not to include a new sanctions amendment to the 2014 Defense Authorization bill, much to the dismay of hawkish Senators. The decision ensures that there won't be a live debate on such an amendment during this week's delicate negotiations in Geneva -- a key White House demand. However, Reid did commit to voting on new sanctions after this week's talks.
"The Senate must be prepared to move forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving recess. And I am committed to do so," Reid said.
Lawmakers adamant on ramping up sanctions against Tehran aren't satisfied.
"Now is the time for maximum pressure on the Iranian regime, before the only option left on the table is the military one," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable in a statement. "Despite past promises, we are now hearing reports that the Administration intends to back off these much needed sanctions. I continue to push for the Senate to pass another round of sanctions, before we are left without any peaceful recourse."
Republicans aren't the only ones feeling heartburn over this week's talks. Top Senate aides tell The Cable that Democrats including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are working with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) on a plan to ramp up sanctions after the Thanksgiving recess. The lawmakers enlisted a bipartisan group of senators for a joint statement calling for the passage of immediate sanctions. "We will work together to reconcile Democratic and Republican proposals over the coming weeks and to pass bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation as soon as possible," read the statement. Signatories included Ben Cardin (D-MD), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) among others. One Senate aide said top Democrats were feeling intense pressure from pro-Israel constituents. "The Jewish community is freaking out about what the president is about to do and Menendez and Schumer are looking for cover," said the aide.
While the talks continue, hundreds of reporters from around the world are going to extreme lengths to get any morsel of news. On Wednesday night, more than a dozen Iranian reporters chased a senior administration official through the hallways of a nearby convention center following an evening briefing. One of the reporters stood on a glass coffee table in an attempt to get a photo of the U.S. official, but the glass shattered, sending him tumbling to the floor.
Reporters' haven't always gotten their prey, however. On Thursday night, Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, strode through the lobby of the Intercontinental without any of the Western or Iranian reporters seeming to notice. Many of the reporters had been there since the morning, trying to keep themselves awake with $11 coffees and $10 bottles of Coke Zero. By that point in the evening, they were simply fried.